Curiosity’s Mission So Far – In Timelapse

One of the best things about the Curiosity mission is that the folks at JPL make all (and I mean every single last one) of the raw images available to the public to download and play around with. Indeed, this is what a lot of space bloggers have been doing like Emily Lakdawalla and @mars-stu‘s Gale Gazette (both are essential reading). I noticed however that a timelapse had yet to be done.

So, on my day off the other day with nothing much to do, thanks to the rain, I spent a few hours downloading every single (or the majority of) images from Curiosity’s left navigation camera. Slap em together at 6 frames per second, add some music and this is what you get…enjoy.

I am also working on a front hazard camera timelapse, but you will need to wait for more photos to be taken as there haven’t been as many yet. Stay tuned.

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Welcome to the new Mars

A nuclear powered rover, the size of a mini, has landed on the surface of Mars. It pulled off one of the most complicated landings ever attempted. I still can’t quite believe they did it. For me this event topped off anything and everything that has happened at this years’ Olympics.

Landing the Mars Science Laboratory rover was, by any measure, the most challenging mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration.

We’ve got at least 2 years of amazing discoveries ahead of us (it could last for a decade or more though). Every time we’ve landed on Mars we’ve seen Mars anew. And here she is:

Welcome to the new Mars

There will be better, full panoramic images to come in the coming days, so be sure to check out the MSL homepage.

And to those of you who think this is a waste of money, that we won’t benefit from this at all, and that the money should have been spent on more ‘worthwhile’ things, please read this.

It is far better to dare mighty things even though we might fail than to stay in the twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

 

 

The Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror

It’s a little over a month until NASA’s new Mars rover, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), lands on the surface of Mars (Anticipated landing time is 0531 GMT, 0631BST on the 6th August – subject to refinement).

The hardest part of this mission? Entry, Descent and Landing. Curiosity will hit the Martian atmosphere at a little over 13,000mph and it’s got to get to 0mph…in 7 minutes. This fantastic video shows you the difficulties that will be faced and the technology designed to overcome it. Trust me, you’ll be impressed!

I’m thankfully on a day off on the said date, and will be getting up early to follow the EDL’s progress and the first pictures that come through. I think the hashtag #MarsCuriosity will be used on Twitter. So join in!

The Secrets of Gale Crater: Why Curiosity Isn’t Looking for Life

The Mars Science Laboratory Rover ‘Curiosity’

It’s about four months until Curiosity, NASA’s new Mars rover, plunges into the thin Martian atmosphere at a good few thousand miles per hour, releases a parachute and then finally uses a retro-rocket jet pack to place her safely down on the surface…hopefully (watch this great video of the landing sequence). She’s a well equipped machine with a radioisotope thermoelectric generator as her power source and a large swathe of spectrometers, microscopes, cameras and sensors. All these gadgets aren’t going to help her look for life though. Why is that? Why hasn’t NASA loaded a Martian rover, sent it Mars (somewhere where we think life may be) and decided not to go hunting for it? It all stems back to NASA’s first missions to land on Mars, the Viking missions, back in 1976. These were two landers that were equipped to look for life. What went wrong?

Mars from Viking 2

The Viking landers consisted of 3 biology experiments along with two other supporting instruments. I want to focus on one of the biology experiments and one of the supporting instruments. I should note first though that two of the biology experiments provided results consistent with non-biological processes. The two aspects I’m focusing on are the labelled release (LR) biology experiment and the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS).

A GCMS is a device used to identify different substances in a test sample and the LR experiment was designed to test for metabolic activity of any microorganisms that consumed nutrients that were provided by the experiment. The results were confusing and yet intriguing.

The LR experiment produced results showing positive life detection. The experiment basically involved a small sample of ‘soil’ being moistened with a nutrient of distilled water and organic compounds that had been labelled with radioactive 14C. Any microorganisms that appeared would consume the nutrient and give off gases containing 14C. In the actual experiment labelled gas was emitted (suggesting the presence of microorganisms) but further additions of nutrient caused the gas level to decrease and then increase slowly again. This was very bizarre if this was due biological activity.

The GCMS, however, didn’t find any evidence of organic compounds at the surface thus making all the biology experiments redundant as they were designed to test organic matter.

This is all a very confusing result. One experiment saying there’s no organic matter so there can be no life whilst another says there could be life here. It’s now thought however the the LR experiment can be explained non-biologically and that all the biology experiments showed chemical processes.

So the overall result? Inconclusive. Although some scientists have started to question the LR experiment recently saying that it did actually find life (see ‘Is this proof of life on Mars?‘). They don’t seem to answer questions about there being no organic matter though.

NASA have since taken the view of ‘follow the water’. They don’t want to spend millions or billions of dollars on a mission to get another inconclusive result. So they’re more recent missions have been to understand the geology and chemical processes, and to figure out where the water has been. After a while we may find evidence of an area that could have extant or extinct life, only then will NASA be confident enough to send a life searching mission to Mars.

Gale crater with Curisoity’s landing site

Gale crater, Curiosity’s destination, is an interesting place though. It appears to have been an old lake bed where sediments have been laid down over long periods of time when Mars had water. A good habitat for life? Possibly, but we’re not going to find out conclusively for a long time yet.

Curiosity: Launch Day Approaching

The launch day of NASA’s next Mars mission is fast approaching. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), named Curiosity, is pretty damn awesome. It’s the size of a modern mini and it’s nuclear powered. It is quite literally a nuclear powered mini.

That isn’t the only impressive fact about this mission. It’ll be the first Mars mission to use precision landing techniques, employing a ‘skycrane’ and rockets to lower it to the surface (see video below), seemingly making this the most ambitious landing on another planetary body ever undertaken.

It’s going to reinforce a lot of the discoveries (and surely make a heck of a lot of new ones) made by the smaller rovers Spirit and Opportunity that were operating on Mars over the past few years (in fact Opportunity is still roving around today, more than 7 years since it landed!) Curiosity is mainly a geological mission, that is it doesn’t carry instruments to detect life, but it’ll be able to asses the planets habitability (past and present) and figure out if Mars is or was ever able to support life. It even carries a weather station which excites me as a met geek!

The rover will be carrying loads of cool equipment one of which is a laser that’ll vaporise a rocks surface layer in order to analyse whats beneath. It has a drill so it can grab a sample of rock and actually insert it into a special compartment in the rover to analyse it.

After much debate it was decided MSL will land at Gale crater, an area of Mars showing signs of past aqueous activity.

She’ll be launching atop an Atlas V rocket on the 25 November at 1521GMT so do tune in to NASA TV to watch the show. I’ll be keeping you updated with the progress!

Destination: Gale Crater

The decision has finally been made. A giant rover known as Curiosity (or the Mars Science Laboratory) that is the size of a Mini will be launched to make a landing in Gale crater on Mars.

Comparison between Sojourner, MER and MSL

As we’ve said, MSL is huge. The size of mini. Over twice the size when compared to the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The Sojourner rover insignificant in comparison.

Gale crater is pretty big too, 154km across, and is an ideal place for a rover. It’s thought to hold a lot of evidence for past water on the Red planet. MSL itself has been designed to look for evidence of past life, whether Mars was ever habitable at all in its past. The rover will spend 1 Martian year exploring the surface (about 2 Earth years) and if the MER’s are anything to go by, Curiosity should last longer (although they are using different power generating sources).

The rover is also going to carry out the first precision landing on Mars. It’ll be using a very unique and ambitious system, a sky crane. I’d compare it to being as difficult as a manned lunar module landing, as in Apollo. It’s a pretty incredible system.

Curiosity will be launching sometime between the 25th November and the 18th December 2011 and landing between the 6th and 20th August 2012, so keep checking NASA’s website for updates.

Here are two videos showing the operation of the sky crane and another describing what Curiosity will be doing at Gale.

Links: NASA report on landing site selection
Space.com report